The Trouble With Bright Girls

Women face a variety of external struggles in the workplace–undermining comments from chauvinistic bosses, dress codes based on women’s modesty, sexual harassment, fighting for equal pay and maternity leave, the “mommy track,” underrepresentation in STEM fields–but bright women face an additional internal struggle that starts from a young age.

Psychologist Carol Dweck conducted a study of fifth graders and found that the higher a girl’s IQ, the more likely she was to lose confidence and give up on when presented with a new, difficult task. In contrast, bright boys saw the task as challenging and exciting.

The reason? Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson says it’s all based in gendered feedback from parents and teachers.

Girls, who tend to be more self-controlled and better at following directions, are praised for good work with phrases that attribute that to a good personality (“you’re so smart” or “you’re such a good student”). On the other hand, boys tend to be more active and emphasize their control over their education (“if you pay attention and try hard, it’ll get easier”).

“The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t ‘good’ and ‘smart,’ and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder,” Dr. Halvorson writes in Psychology Today, “And because bright girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves.”

horseOperant conditioning is powerful. Rewards and punishments undeniably shape and reinforce children’s behavior, so I buy Dr. Halvorson’s argument the difference in perceptions of ability between boys and girls comes from the type of language adults use to encourage them. That said, she’s missing a key reason why bright girls sometimes struggle with new challenges.

I’ve quit almost everything I’ve started. It’s not a bad thing–why would I continue to do an activity I don’t enjoy?–but when I look back at why I quit horseback riding, dance, tennis, swimming, and basketball I see “the trouble with bright girls.” I quit my sports because I wasn’t good at them, long before I had practiced enough to become good.

I saw myself improving. I knew my abilities were changeable. I knew I’d get better if I continued. But I was used to things coming easily, and I gave up when they didn’t. It was less about self-worth as it was self-expectations.

In school, I was known for being smart and capable. I was used to being the best. In sports, I wasn’t. If I wasn’t the worst on the team, I was definitely near there. My parents praised me for my progress, and my dad in particular offered to shoot hoops or practice my serve with me so I could get better. But I gave up anyway.

I’m a passionate person. When I decide I want to do something, I involve myself wholeheartedly. But that fire only lasts so long.

paintingSchool provided the extrinsic motivation that could keep me going when my intrinsic motivation faltered. I’ll work for good grades and recognition even if I don’t feel personally attached to what I’m learning.

Hobbies and creative projects are different. Like my sports, I’ve also quit handfuls of other activities outside of school: guitar, sewing, making bracelets, every attempt at journaling or blogging before this one. I fall in love with things fast, and then become disenchanted just as quickly when something new comes along. If I don’t love something, I can’t physically make myself do it, leaving me with vestiges of half-finished projects cluttering my house as evidence. It’s an awful routine, but perhaps it’s the plague of the bright girl.

Gendered language and associating girls’ actions with their self-worth is problematic. But sometimes the “trouble with bright girls” is their passion and natural talent, which isn’t trouble at all.

This is a response to a Psychology Today article called “The Trouble With Bright Girls.”


8 thoughts on “The Trouble With Bright Girls

  1. This is a very interesting take on the article. I would categorise myself as one of these ‘bright girls’ but being the youngest of three sisters, going to an all girl secondary school and being an active member of the Guiding movement, I have been in a rare situation where all of the people that helped shape my education – parents, teachers, guide leaders were all on board the female empowerment train. Its only really now that I work for a more male dominated organisation that I see the differences more clearly.

    I definitely agree that part of the struggle with new challenges is that you’re used to picking things up quickly but I also think that the right role models can go such a long way in replacing the ‘well I’m just going to give then’ reflex with a ‘I’m going to put some work in to this’ determination.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really needed to read this tonight. I’ve been dealing with this issue with my daughter. She’s brilliant and talented but she dabbles in something and then discards it. My husband and I always laud her intellect and with my son (who struggles a little in school) we always push the work ethic. I’ve always chalked up her lack of ambition to being gifted and expecting everything to come easy, but now I wonder if there’s more to it. I’m going to keep this in the most forefront of my mind. Thank you SO much. I (hope) you may have given me an insight I hadn’t considered.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad my perspective has translated to your own life–and at a good time, too. There definitely may be more than meets the eye with her rapidly changing interests. And, if it’s any comfort, I think I’m actually better off for my dabbling than if my parents had required me to stick with one thing.


  3. This is very interesting. I think I agree with you… I’ve dabbled in a lot of things and quit most of them. I’m interested in trying things, and if I don’t love it, I’ll just go do something else. I’m usually quitting to do something else that I’d rather be doing, not because I don’t think I can succeed at the other thing. The fact that I’ve quit so many things represents how many things I was interested in trying.

    (I’m not sure that was always the case for everything — I actively avoid sports because I intensely dislike them, but when I was younger there was a strong element of “I know I’m bad at them so why bother” too.)


  4. Pingback: NaBloPoMo Roundup and Reflection | Victim to Charm

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